Recently, I was struck by a flash of insight when listening to Bill Moyers interview with the great mythologist Joseph Campebell. Campbell has been a source of inspiration for me since I had to struggle through his somewhat complex book “The hero in a thousand faces” for a university exam. Luckily, I realised the profound wisdom of his work soon after I had the exam out of the way.
During the interview Moyers inquires about the mythological story of the Holy Grail and Campbell elaborates on this rich topic, saying:

[…] the impulses of nature are what give authenticity to life, not obeying rules coming from a supernatural authority – that’s the sense of the [holy] grail.

After a recent delivery of a leadership programme I was surprised by how careful people were to behave following some hidden, unwritten rules. You could smell fear in the air. Many looked stifled. Although to some extent this happens with great regularity when a big group of strangers meet for the first time, I had rarely seen it that pronounced and continuous.

Naturally, social life comes with our adaptation to different roles and expectations, so that it is futile to theorise that there might be such a thing as a “authentic self” outside of and untarnished by the social sphere that we all grew up and live within, but when individuals are full of fear about projecting a certain image, their actions become empty and competitive; not the best place for genius or greatness. Ironically the event was about authentic leadership. In reality the tense atmosphere created by a few senior managers led people to behave authentically inauthentic at best.

Campbell states that it is our natural impulses and NOT the obedience of rules and a higher authority that give authenticity to life. In other words our personal drivers are the juice of life, the petrol that runs our psychological engines and ultimately the motivation that drives peoples’ behaviours and makes good organisations great. The good news is – we’ve all got them.

The bad news is that structurally enforced obedience can get in the way. In a well-intended search for the holy grail of employee engagement, talent attraction and talent retention, many organisations develop regulations and frameworks to streamline and control processes. But what might look reasonable on paper and may sound intelligent in a board room, all too often contributes to the very disease that it was trying to cure in the first place, moving the organisation further and further away from the holy grail of happy staff towards a hell of inertia (to stay consistent with the metaphor).

People that become concerned with the risk of damaging their reputation might pour a lot of their energy into attempts to look competent, in control, strong and knowledgeable rather than focusing on taking meaningful action. If everyone else does it, I shall be damned if I don’t.

In a not so funny way reality then becomes skewed on a group level. Everyone knows something is wrong yet we all pretend as if it wasn’t so. Decisions are then taken based on a skewed, disconnected value system – working long hours despite exhaustion, covering up of mistakes and consequently a missed chance for remedial action, holding back important perspectives, opinions or insights out of fear to lose face, favouritism, back stabbing etc.

With regards to the Campbell quote, what happens in such a scenario is the suppression of natural (more constructive) impulses for the sake of a defensive, unhealthy, energy draining social alignment caused by the pressures of ineffective authority.

What I see great leaders and great organisations do instead, is to turn this dynamic around, and helping people to align their natural impulses with their work.

What is it that you enjoy doing and that you are good at? How much of that are you doing in your role? What is getting in the way of this? How would you run the company? What insights do you have that others don’t? Who do you enjoy working with the most? What are your aspirations? What difficulties are you facing? What do you think needs improvement? What could I be doing differently? etc.

Mistakes, failure and poor performance are then not tackled by ever increasing layers of command and control, but dealt with through open dialogue, by inquiry instead of just telling, by handing responsibility to the individual rather than taking it away, by offering development opportunities and sometimes just by acknowledging and exploring the positive intent behind someone’s action.

When leadership is used in this cooperative way it helps people to relax, to reduce the role-playing and to shine and perform. There can be a fruitful marriage between authority and natural impulses that make good use of existing power structures by giving people enough space, support and challenge so that working environment and personal drivers become mutually inclusive  and thus creating a more successful, dynamic, fun, authentic and fulfilling enterprise.